A writing book, I believe Jerome Stern's Writing Shapely Fiction, posited
that a good short story shouldn’t be tidy enough to summed up with a neat
“it’s about” statement. Ideally, a story summation should start, “well,
it’s about a lot of things…”
So while The Human Dilemma is about overpopulation, it is, I hope, about
more -- a loose tangle of themes: sex, parenthood, collecting mania, the
limits of the perspective bequeathed by our evolutionary past, fame,
civilization at this fraught juncture. The mess we’re in as a species.
Just don’t expect this to be a trudge. I can’t stand it when my wife
brings home what I call a “homework movie” when I just want a trashy
thriller. So there’re plenty of laughs, blood, suspense and other
storytelling sugar on this beta-carotene pill.
Not the least of which is sex.
Sex, and Concrete’s unsalved ache in regard to same, has been a feature
to the series from the beginning. I think it’s something my readership,
which I suspect is mostly shy young males unskilled at girl-chasing (maybe
I’m projecting?), can identify with.
Some musician said it: sex and money, no big deal when you’ve got ‘em,
biggest things in the world when you don’t.
Poor Concrete somehow got his libido transferred into this rock body along
with his brain. It doesn’t really make sense – it’s hormones and other
chemicals that fuel this fire – but leaving the matter unaddressed seemed
unthinkable to me when I, then in my mid-twenties, was first brainstorming
Concrete. So Concrete suffers, a desert of rock upon which rain sizzles
and quickly dries.
Larry is the opposite of this, a man for whom womankind is a fascination
that outshines the sun, resulting in a tropism that would give a sunflower
whiplash. Larry acts. He’s able to. In this story, it’s to his regret.
I’ve always thought of Maureen as someone ambivalent about the attention
brought by her beauty, who developed a spacey obtuseness as a defense.
Concrete’s de facto asexuality is something of a relief. But she’s also
sensitive, and Concrete is hardly subtle in his unmet yearnings. She
doesn’t enjoy his suffering.
So some terror and blood and wine and exhaustion break down her
inhibitions and lead to something she’s probably been thinking about for
It has consequences (another one of my themes!).
Is overpopulation humankind’s biggest problem? I think so. I think we
could probably support our current population in comfort, given utopian
powers of social organization…but those will never come. And the rapid
growth of population exacerbates everything: poverty, resource wars,
fundamentalism, social breakdown, failed states, species extinction, soil
erosion, deforestation, sustainability.
Institutions deal better with slow change. Rapid population growth
assures it will never be slow.
The tragedy of Africa, especially, promises to continue in all its
grinding-poverty, child-soldier, massacres-and-mass-rape-and-HIV awfulness
for most of the century. Bill and Melinda and Bono notwithstanding (and I
applaud them), I suspect civilization is going to be so preoccupied
fighting over oil and this damn clash-of-civilizations war that the West
will never do what it takes.
Even though it’s pretty simple, in principle. Give poor women a break.
Let them control their fertility. Free contraceptive and prenatal care
everywhere. They’ll choose lives of moderation, with enough kids to love
and carry on but not so many that they can never get ahead. It’s not a
cultural thing; everybody in the world wants to do a little better. Give
them the power.
Our ungoverned fertility was necessary for most of our history. Look at
the population chart…it bounced around in a relatively steady state for
millennia. We barely kept ahead of all the viruses and parasites (and
later, wars) that constantly preyed upon us. Thank goodness a woman can
pop out 20 kids over her lifetime if all goes well. Otherwise, we’d be
nothing but unexamined fossils beneath the striding paws of nature, red in
tooth and claw.
But our cleverness – in particular, science (the only human activity that
ever changes things in a big way) has rewritten the rules of the game.
Part of our nature that preserved us now makes us the wrecking crew of our
But maybe some of that cleverness can help us cope, too. One hopes not
the way of Randall Gordon in my story, but somehow…
Friday Harbor, WA 2006
Friday Harbor, WA